Sunday, May 15, 2011

Impressive Debut Crime Fiction: THESE DARK THINGS, Jan Merete Weiss

Last week, Soho Crime finally released the debut crime novel THESE DARK THINGS by Jan Merete Weiss. I was fortunate to get an advance copy from the press some months ago -- and after reading it, immediately e-mailed editor Juliet Grames to say how glad I am that Soho found this author. Maybe only a publisher that swims internationally would have caught hold of it, because Weiss grew up in Puerto Rico, lives in New York, and set her book in ... Naples, Italy.

And it's not a book that the Naples "Chamber of Commerce" will adore. During a city argument with a local -- and regionally connected -- crime family, the Camorra, the city reeks of trash, piled all around. A brutal aspect of the plot is that citizens who tackle the trash on their own, attempting to clean up around their homes by hauling trash out of the way themselves, risk an instant end to their lives. And in this mess, Captain Natalia Monte of the  Carabinieri gets called to deal with the corpse of a beautiful college student, discovered among stacks of bones in a church crypt.

Natalia is a team player with a carefully quiet past episode that comes up early in the murder investigation as she presses to discover what the college student had actually been doing, and who she'd been doing it with, at the time of the death:
Natalia too had been close to completing her doctorate, until the same Dr. Marco Lattanza pressed against her as they rode along in an elevator at the conference they were attending in Rome. She pushed him away, refusing to sleep with him. A month later, he scrawled Indefensible ["Rejected"] across her black-and-white title page in blood-red ink.

Too ashamed to tell her parents what had happened, for a year she lived at home, not doing much of anything. It was [her friend] Mariel who'd finally rescued her from depression, encouraging her to join the force.
Now that episode gives Monte some insight into how Teresa Steiner could have become trapped in a relationship with an organized crime leader. Or at least, that's how it seems at first. Monte's pursuit of the truth will lead her through the city's catacombs, and to converse with a blind monk somehow involved.

Monte's persistent investigation, pressing against the crime family in the process, puts her at great risk. But in a sense she's reclaiming something stolen from her as she insists on pursuing the case. Weiss gives her a vivid personality that pairs strength with vulnerability, and political savvy with romantic uncertainty. And the well-spun plot plays out among powerful descriptions of Naples -- here's one of my favorites, from late in the book:
In among the restored facades of their gentrified domiciles and offices were slummy residences of the poor. Their kids played in the streets, beneath endless lines of drying laundry strung across the narrow lands and blind alleys, and skateboarded along the well-maintained streets. Bent old women trudged past the caf├ęs, carrying groceries home, grimy youngsters in tow. A woman openly sold tax-free contraband cigarettes and lottery tickets at the corner, and two African peddlers offered knockoffs of designer handbags and watches. A young man sold gelato beneath a cheerful red-and-white-striped awning. It was  a fashionable area reclaiming its past splendor, made all the more popular by its views of the water.
Pay attention, amid all this distracting scenery, to Monte's own strength, because it's the best clue to how the case finally resolves. Even with this nudge, though, I'm betting most readers will be surprised by Weiss's final twists. I hope this is the start of a powerful series -- and once again, hats off to Soho Crime for bringing a new voice forward.

1 comment:

Juliet said...

thanks for this awesome review :) we're glad you liked it!